Summer of 1975. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released. Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom manned the top of the Billboard Charts. Michigander Gerald Ford was president, succeeding Watergate- disgraced Richard Nixon. My favorite jeans were vertically striped in white, yellow, green and brown.
It wasn’t Levittown, but it was similar. Livonia was a once new-ring suburb of Detroit, where I was born. Our little burg was called Devonaire Woods and carpeted with post WWII brick ranch homes. All were designed and built alike: three bedrooms, one bath, living room, kitchen and basement. If kids visited someone else’s house, you didn’t need to ask where the bathroom was.
I was twelve, hanging out with my summer friends in the neighborhood. We rode our bikes with confidence as if they were hot rods. I was the big mouth to come up with the phrase, “Check it out!” We shouted as we cruised the hood and exercised our own sense of freedom.
During the school year, I attended Catholic school, St. Mike’s, a mile away, along with a few other neighborhood kids. We took a city bus or walked across Merriman Road.
In summer, kids hung out at the local and free Parks and Rec center, held at the former Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, just a few blocks from Sunset Avenue.
At Parks and Rec, we skipped the checkers and craft activities, and mostly sat around and shot the shit. Talking was something maybe a lot of kids, like me and my brother, did not do much of with our hard-working parents.
Nights and weekends, there was no escape. I lived with my mother, Eugenia Jeanne, and sole sibling, two and half years younger, Rodney Rouelle. My rambler gambler dad, Ronald Rouelle, was mostly gone by this point. My middle name is Marie. Gina Marie.
Jeanine was everyone’s favorite counselor, with long, straight, dark hair. Daily, something groovy was depicted on her tee shirt, tucked into belted, bell bottom Levi’s. The original smiley face was popular at the time. We asked her about her boyfriend Jim for hours each day.
That year, Jeanine was selected to direct the all-city Parks and Rec play. Due favoritism and reliability, my closest friends and I all landed roles. Barb Johnston, Mary McCusker and I were sent by our parents to St. Mikes, but we all lived within a few blocks of each other, so we played together year-round, too, with Shelly Branch, on Flamingo Street.
The play was called Who Stole the King’s Cream Puffs? What was actually stolen was the recipe for the cream puffs. Neat and tidy, unlike life, it was a standard ‘all is fine, all is not fine,’ after some turmoil, ‘all is fine again’ standard theatrical affair.
Type casting was employed to execute the task of rehearsing and staging a play during the months most kids would rather just chill with popsicles. Barb, who resembled Greta Garbo, was cast as the Queen. Mary, awkward and shorter, with deep red hair and buckish teeth, was cast as a court page. Shelly, blonde, non-Catholic, fair and slight, a magical wisp of a girl, was tapped to play the good witch.
Kids at Parks and Recs, most of whom went to public school, asked me quizzically, “Are you Hawaiian?”
They wanted to know what explained my dark hair, round face and not white skin. I tanned very well. We had a backyard pool where I spent the rest of my time, when I was not bike riding, playing baseball or doing other Parks and Rec stuff.
Jeanine was part Native American. What was my story?
Communication was not a strong suit in our family. I wondered, am I Hawaiian?
I don’t blame her one bit. Jeannine cast me the bad witch.
By the end of the play, all ended well for all the characters except mine.
I made my own evil witch costume. Underneath, I wore black leotard and tights, which I had on hand from taking dance lessons through the same Parks and Rec program. My mother was a home economics teacher, so her Singer sewing machine was always open and ready to go. With sheer black cotton, I made a simple shift that I wore on top of my black base. Using Elmer’s glue and silver glitter, I decorated the shift with stars and comet swooshes. The bottom was unhemmed and cut raggedy, like a ruffle of knives. I drew an owl on my chest.
Lacking green, like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, I applied grey and black make up to my face, which made me look more like a zombie. My hair was bobbed above my shoulders. Curly hair does not bob, not like figure skating Olympian Dorothy Hammill’s famous bob swooshed as she spun her head. Neighborhood kids called me “the sphinx.” Another myth of the monstrous female.
I started my menstrual period that year, sixth grade, after an all-nighter pajama party. I faced change alone. No sex talk, scientific explanation or celebrate my womanhood ceremony came with the menstrual pads quietly handed to me.
I picture my mother’s face in a permanent frown.
Repelled, I found some O.B. tampons in the bathroom cabinet above the toilet. I tried to use one, but my vagina was too tight. It was embarrassing even though no one was around to see. In the white and pink tile bathroom, the only bathroom, I tried to figure out my new found but elusive part and what I was supposed to do with it. It seemed like it took hours to remove the plug from this third hole at the base of my body. I resorted to shredding the thing out of me, bit by bit.
Resigned to failure, I used the supplies my mom gave me. This was before self-stick menstrual pads. Before there was a woman on the US Supreme Court, bulky cotton wads were held in place inside my white Carter underwear with a garter belt. This not sexy get up was all worn under my Catholic school girls-only navy-blue plaid skirt with navy-blue knee socks.
One moment from this year of theater and biological change has stayed with me, like a talisman worn around the neck. An unlucky charm.
I was alone. It was daytime. The maple and oak trees were in spring bloom. Dandelion seeds floated in the air. They fell toward the green grass like nature’s parachuters. The air was flooded with tangible daylight. I stood on the sidewalk passing by the well-wooded park on foot. I can pinpoint the spot within a few blocks of concrete.
I felt golden. Remember this moment, my young mind told myself, though little happened, and whatever happened, did so quickly, passing in seconds.
I still struggle to find the words to explain.
First, I enjoyed a nice day dream, predicting that I would have two daughters, who I would name Chelsea and Monica. Then, quickly, my interior weather shaded, turned colder. My vision diminished, clouded. No, I would not have two daughters named Chelsea and Monica. There was no husband in my reverie. I would have no children at all when I grew up.
That’s it. I did not think about the implications or label what a woman without children is. I wasn’t ready.
Now I realize. A woman without children is called a witch.
A short, pale, light-skinned, chubby boy, who did not want to be playing sports instead, was cast as king. The monarch was the only main character culled from outside our group of friends.
The stage was created with elevated risers, set up in the front of a small gym, near city hall, minus a proscenium arch. We performed for a small turnout of parents.
Smiling, enjoying the drama, I posed on stage. My hand was raised over my head, as I cursed the king with relish.
“You’ll never see that cream puff recipe again!” I commanded, with force and conviction mostly unseen off stage.
I found playing the stereotypical femme fatale to be an easy and fun assignment. No studying required, like passing tests at school. Without exertion, I outsized and over-powered my male nemesis.
As the bad witch, my fictional future was cursed. Born a happy soul, I demarcated[G1] a line between Who Stole the King’s Cream Puffs? and my own life. I recognized no reflection in the mirror, no foreshadowing.
Decades later, however, I must wonder. Am I really some sort of witch?
Sr. DeSales Nun Enemy
Looking back now, Rosedale Gardens is six blocks of only so-so. Then it was the greener grass on the other side of the main road. In Devoniare Woods, we lived in monotonous suburbia. People in Rosedale Gardens lived more distinctly, in a small enclave of pre-WWII homes with street names ending in “ton” and “wick.” All were one-offs, many deep red brick, worn brown, and two story. How envious I was.
As an adult, I see the Rosedale Garden homes crowding one another. Still, they don’t aim to replicate one another. That show of individuality meant something to me growing up, and it still does.
At the edge of Rosedale Gardens, sits the Catholics’ grade school compound. The school calls itself St Michael the Archangel now, which is awfully showing and pretentious.
The school gym, built in the decade of the Great Depression, is also fortified with red brick. Even after renovations to the property, to this day the building is topped externally with a concrete cross, no dead body. In my day, the gore was waiting inside.
Inside the gym, for some reason we were standing in the middle of the baseball court, just the two of us. I was a second grader. With both of my child-sized hands, I offered to the principal, Sr. DeSales, a Christmas present. Homemade slippers, wrapped in cheap holiday paper, no box.
My generosity was sincere. Sr. DeSales smiled but not genuinely, which was confusing. But memorable.
I wondered, what was that displeased look not so well hidden on Sr. DeSale’s face?
In seventh and eighth grade, I would be a cheerleader, utilized for my large and sturdy frame, at the bottom of mounts, in this very spot.
If I were to cast a streaming service biopic of my life, I would cast actor John Turturro, from Do the Right Thing and Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? as Sr. DeSales.
Sr. DeSales, like all the Felician nuns, wore a dark habit, brown or black, with a stiff white collar, tight around her neck, and matching head gear. Her dark veil hid and replaced most of her own hair. And, of course, around her neck, Sr. DeSales wore a crucifix, with dead body, displayed on a chord between her understated breasts.
Crucifixes were everywhere in my childhood. They hung around the neck of each nun. They were plastered on the wall of each classroom, in the front of the room under the PA system speakers, which were upholstery-covered like the speakers on old television sets. And just in case you were day dreaming during class, they were also affixed over each means of egress.
The bastion of the higher-ranking priests, Father Partensky and Father Forrish, the altar of St. Michael’s church boasted the largest cross and bloody lord. Torture was the centerpiece of each repetitive Mass: stand up, sit down, kneel. Stand up, sit down, kneel. You suffer too.
My mother kept a much smaller crucifix next to her 8 ½ x 10 replica of the face of Jesus, blond hair and blue eyed, caught in gentle profile. The image portrayed Jesus before crucifixion, I always presumed, as I never believed in the rest of the grandiose story. You’ve likely seen the very image, though you’ve never been inside my mother’s bedroom. Warner E. Sallman’s 1940 painting “Head of Christ” dutifully adorned my mother’s private space, positioned next to her requisite crucifix. Last year’s Psalm Sunday tokens were tucked between the framed reproduction and the wall, then changed out each year.
My mom was a home economics teacher who could not see beyond a home economics future for me. She knitted many sets of slippers following the same pattern and distributed her output widely. The slippers were crudely made, with a large stitch, meaning the slippers hurt to walk on. Eugenia employed acrylic yarn in jarring primary colors available in the Kmart yarn section. She leaned toward red and blue, but not yellow. Each bootie was festooned with a yarn pom-pom on the top, where more sophisticated ballet slippers, in pink, tie a bow and experienced dancers tuck that bow.
Teasing, for a nickname, Rod called me “fat dancer,” instead of “Tiny Dancer.” I thought to his credit, as a sibling required to psychologically abuse me, it was a pretty good line, though it’s welcome wore thin.
The present I passed to Sr. DeSales was concealed, but maybe she had x-ray eyes and could see that I had given her the same handmade slippers the year before? Is that why she was displeased but hiding it?
By the time I attended all-girl Ladywood High School, across town to the north, Sr. DeSales had become principal there, too. Sr. DeSales advanced in her career progression as if she were stalking me.
Ladywood edged the main campus of Livonia Catholic central. After they arrived from Poland, the Felician nuns made a big footprint. The high school shielded view of the Felician nunnery and the nuns’ private well-appointed chapel. To serve their own holiness, the Felician nuns designed and built in imposing Spanish hacienda style, set back from the main road behind woods. With its intricate stained-glass depictions of saints and vaunted ceilings, the nuns chapel is much grander than St. Mike’s much less impressive church. Girls saw inside the nun’s private chapel once, when we graduated.
A hospital, St. Mary Mercy, which the nuns built as they built St. Mikes, is the nun’s show piece, along with co-ed Madonna College, all squatting on the same tax-free corner of the city. At some point Madonna College became Madonna University, in order to compete for students. Class D football for Jesus is the latest gimmick to keep doors open there. Ladywood closed in 2018. To my dismay, the hospital is still open.
By my teenage years, Eugenia had stopped knitting slippers. Instead, she’d moved on to knitting bag lady-shaped sweaters. This may sound overly critical because you’ve not seen the sweaters. For Christmas one year, she gave one in lime green to my now ex-sister-in-law, which rightly perturbed Leslie. No one could be expected to wear such ugliness just because their mother-in-law didn’t waste leftover yarn.
Mom taught at the Detroit Day School for the Deaf. Her classroom was bigger than the first floor of our house, with sewing room, laundry, kitchen, and classroom. When I went with her to school, I heard her yell at deaf students, too. To earn her pay and feed me, my mom faked knowing sign language, I think. She yelled a lot, at home and at work.
Once I tried to push my mother’s knitting in a more artistic direction. To pre-empt her baser instincts, I bought a Vogue pattern, with dimensional rose petals, scattered atop a tasteful, muted, forest green cardigan. The design was something a model would wear and a model who looked like Andie McDowell did wear in the picture on the pattern. But my mom said the Vogue pattern was too difficult. Instead, she chose a pattern with flat florals. It doesn’t take much to annoy a teenage girl. Only fake models for Kmart would wear the final design: one dimensional, harnessed with a white yoke, handcuffed over a Virgin Mary blue bodice, Virgin Mary blue. The sweater was many sizes larger than my not petite frame.
While I was living in her house, I dutifully fulfilled Eugenia’s wishes and knitted a sampler. Like I was one of her students, I practiced a cross section of stitches in left over lime green. But I was never truly interested.
At home, every day, afternoon and night, all day long on weekends, seven days a week, silently, unless someone was crying and yelling, we watched television. The Mike Douglas Show, The Flintstones, Speed Racer, All in the Family, One Day at a Time, a long list weekly referenced in the TV Guide. We had one television like we had one bathroom. Eugenia didn’t connect with the idea behind Marlo Thomas and Ms. Magazine’s early 1970s record album, Free to Be You and Me. I don’t recall watching the ABC television show of the same name. The concept of allowing children to grow into themselves as individuals was inconceivable to my Catholic mother.
And to the Felician nuns, too.
Coincidentally, about fifteen years later, Marlo Thomas appeared at Ladywood to speak to us girls about donating to St Jude’s Children’s hospital—not the concept of individuality. The school community convened in the gym. I sat in front right before the stage and tried to tell television’s That Girl! through my telepathed expression, “We are trapped here!” “We are not free!”
I figured Sr. DeSales was a lesbian the time she reprimanded me across the long dank main hall, “Button your blouse!”
She screamed, meaning button my blouse to the neck like a nun. As if not doing so meant I had murdered, or spread my legs for a man in a porno film.
Sr. DeSales had startled me. Across the dark distance between us, I gave her a perturbed, quizzical look in return. Why does she care if I’m attractive?
Am I attractive? A nun should not have been my mirror.
Near the end, or what I thought was the end of my sentence with the nuns, I faced Sr. DeSales one last time. Successfully, I had avoided her most of the times I arrived late to school. I drove myself in my mother’s hand-me-down virgin blue AMC Rambler, after I delivered the morning The Detroit Free Press, which paid for my afterschool ballet habit.
At first, it was funny when Sr. Alexis, the French teacher, avoided speaking French and instead talked about the pope, John Paul II at the time, the Polish pope, in English. But the comedic element had worn off. It had started to occur to me that my future would be impinged by the Felician nun’s lousy quality of education. After a test taken from a test book series that we were not using, a grade level ahead, Sr. Alexis handed out random grades. She guessed what students may have gotten on a fair test. Steam blew out my ears like a cartoon character.
Sr. Alexis really could not actually speak French!
I started to learn, too slowly, that one must read between the lines. That lesson came slowly, in part, because we did not read novels in high school. When AP English hit Ladywood senior year, the only course that included reading, I did not make the cut. Sr. DeSales did not include me. I was co-editor of the school newspaper, The Plaid Press, and a future English teacher and writer.
I was moved to take action.
Appalled, I left the classroom and stormed down the hallway. I embodied the agency I rarely let fly.
With anger and aggression, still two huge no-nos for women in America, I invited myself into Sr DeSale’s office. At first, sitting behind her desk, she was surprised. For a short second, Sr. DeSales seemed to be concerned. I informed her that I was going to tell parents that the Felician nuns were running a school where the French teacher could not actually speak French, and Sr. DeSales knew it.
Once again, like when I was young, we faced off, but this time I was better able to read Sr. DeSales’ visage. To my dismay, like clouds overpowering sunshine, I watched her concern pass quickly, and her smug grimace return.
Sr. DeSales did not need to speak. Like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she used silence as a weapon.
In 1980, parents did not send girls to Ladywood to become rocket scientists or world travelers. Parents would not care and would not believe a teenage girl, not even their own teenage girl, ratting out Sr. Alexis and Sr. DeSales.
Sr. DeSales soon remembered she had nothing to worry about.
I know what that look on her face so many years ago in the St. Mike’s gym is called now.
Decades after I thought I had escaped their grasp, the Felician nuns exhibited the same self-serving superiority over me. And Sr. DeSales was still alive, my nun enemy.
After my higher education employer used psychiatry to dismantle me, I was forced to investigate. Mental health care is psychiatry, and psychiatry did not turn the corner from lobotomy and become legitimate. Now we have a horrible quagmire, where both mainstream press and medical students filter a swirl of tainted misinformation, passing as common wisdom.
Buried in an article, a news outlet may admit that there are still no blood, gene or brain scan tests to determine any psychiatric order listed in the DSM. But the conglomerates are also still likely to fail to spell out what that means: psychiatric diagnosis is based purely on bias, which is a dangerous situation.
If one reads an article about another black man shot by police due to a “mental health crisis,” he will perhaps be labeled “schizophrenic” by a forensic psychiatrist working for the state penal system. One will likely also read that authorities and commentators believe the answer is more psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric drugs—even though the history of psychiatric hospitals remains a horror show, and psychiatric drugs don’t address a person’s problems, work as placebos and cause harm.
- All media coverage, whether news or feature, should reveal the payments made to individuals, medical journals and universities for studies, articles and endorsements. Make Sunshine Laws shine.
- There should be standard disclaimers about the nature of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, especially when a media figure comes out as “bipolar,” which is condition that does not actually exist (and what a horrible name).
- The United States government should track voluntary and involuntary psychiatric detentions, which is does not do, unlike criminal detentions, and it should ask patients to review their own outcomes.
“Mental patients” are still stigmatized as outcasts and others who need containment, not care. We are a class of citizen who should lack autonomy and human rights, others hold, which is as wrong as wrong can be. There is zero recognition outside of organizations like Madwomen in the Attic that mistakes are being made and lives are being ruined by modern psychiatry.
About Gina Fournier (pictured above in a witch’s garments amid schoolmates all dressed in white):
Just when I thought I found my path, in my late forties, psychiatry was used as a tool to dismantle my life. My story is absolutely crazy, not me. In my fifties, I fought to save my life from “criminal psychiatry,” actual violations of the state mental health code, in my case, surrounding involuntary detainment. After suicide swatting by my hostile higher education employer, I was unnecessarily abducted from my home by sexist police and not evaluated by the emergency room doctor who signed the court paperwork to lock me up. At first, after I got out, due to lack of legal protections, I battled with humor and grace, always with truth, my pen, a camera, a paintbrush, and letter writing to government and politicians. Next, I resorted to civil protest and FOIA. Then, due to frustration and futility, nearing sixty, I showed my anger and vented uncivil but still legal protest. No one can tell me with authority that cursing isn’t a sanity-saving therapy, though it may scare people off and cause problems. It took ten years to gather the medical records necessary to prove my claim, and still, no one in power will acknowledge me. A second decade of imposed mental torture is here. Nothing has worked to correct the record and allow me to heal. The task of overcoming retaliatory and criminal psychiatry is immense due to the messy, contested, big dollar, big ego terrain. Most victims hurt by psychiatry seem to disappear uncharted and nameless, which is terrifying.
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